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ACS Alumni Council Profile: Carissa Means

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 25, 2017
If you are currently on campus, you will likely recognize Carissa Means, an ACS parent and member of the ACS Alumni Council. Read more about Carissa and why she stays involved in ACS below. 
What was your class year? 

Tell us all about your life – What are some favorite hobbies? Is there anything you really enjoy doing? Do you have any news about your family you would like to share?  
I enjoy gardening, beekeeping, volunteering with my church, and showing my horse. Just this summer, we purchased our new horse Prada N Pearls. My children, Lucas (8) and Lindley (4), have taken her to their first horse show. It is fun to get to share my love of horse showing with my children. My husband Jeff and my brother Peter Angerhofer ‘83 continue to grow the healthcare consulting firm they started two years ago.
What have you done since graduating from ACS?  
Since graduation, I have worked in the education, technology, and beauty industries. It has been fun to thread my love of education through my various interests. I have lived on the East coast twice, run for state office, served on the school board, hosted Presidential candidates, and started a wonderful little family.
What do you do now?  
Currently, I am blessed to be able to stay home with my kids, volunteer at church and at Avery Coonley, travel with my husband, and indulge in my love of chickens, bees, and horses. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to have two children at Avery Coonley. Staying home with them, I have the ability to volunteer as much as needed. I get to watch them experience the same things I remember from my childhood. 
What is one of your proudest accomplishments?  
My proudest accomplishment definitely involves my husband and kids. I am so thankful for the environment my husband and I have created in which our children get to learn and grow. Our house is definitely the “Madhouse on Madison,” but our kids are experiencing things most city kids miss. I think everyone is happy when they come to our house. 
Thinking back, what is one of your fondest memories from your time at ACS?  
This question is impossible to answer. There are just too many. Instead of going with the obvious ones, I am going to name one from 4th group. At a time when we were now expected to be self-sufficient and prepared for middle school, Mrs. Grussing let us lie on the floor while she read us the most magical book. It was called The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. If you haven’t read it find yourself a nice used copy. 
How did going to ACS impact your life?  
ACS influenced me in so many ways. My eyes were opened to art, music, cultures around the world, and beautiful traditions. I left through the gate prepared to present myself with confidence and sensitivity. 
Who was your favorite teacher and why?  
I definitely had several favorites. My greatest thrill was to be in Mrs. Ward’s first 1st Group class and have my son in her last 1st group class. It was wonderful to get to spend so much time with her again. 
What was your favorite tradition? 
My favorite tradition was sneaking on stage to run up and down the spiral staircases before cheerleading practice. Wait! Did I say that out loud? I really meant having the spaces in 3rd Group. 
Why do you think more alums should be involved with ACS?  
I definitely think more alums should be more involved. It is so important for current families, teachers, and administrators to understand what has made this school great throughout the years. Yes, the academics are great and important, but Avery Coonley is so much more than great curriculum. Coming back as an alum, you are able to pass along that heritage. We are raising children. Let’s give them magical childhoods. Whenever I drive through those gates, it is as if I am a child again. I am at rest. I am creative. I am at play. I am home.

Tags:  Alumni  alumni council 

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ACS Alumni Council Profile: R.J. Lopez

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Welcome to our series of profiles on the ACS Alumni Council members. R.J. Lopez is a graduate of the ACS Class of 1995. He's been an active member of the ACS Alumni Council for several years.

1. What was your class year?  

 2.  Tell us all about your life – What are some favorite hobbies? Is there anything you really enjoy doing? Do you have any news about your family you would like to share?
These days my life really revolves around my family and my financial advising business.  I met my wife, Brianne, our freshman year in college, and got married in 2008.  We have two young children. Braden is two years old, and will be three in November.  Tyler just turned one in May.  I enjoy taking them to their music and swimming lessons and watching them develop.  Now that the kids are a bit older, we can travel more with them.  We're looking forward to going on our first big family vacation to Hawaii next year!

3.  What have you done since graduating from ACS?
I attended high school at Benet Academy, then the University of Illinois at Chicago for college.  Right after graduating, I took the Series 7, Series 66, and the life and health license exams, and started my financial advising practice. 

4. What do you do now? 
I'm a financial advisor with Edward Jones. I have my own practice in Park Ridge.  I have enjoyed seeing my clients reach big milestones in their lives

5. What is one of your proudest accomplishments?
My proudest accomplishment so far is learning how to be a good dad.  A personal goal of mine was to run a half marathon, and I accomplished that in 2015.

6. Thinking back, what is one of your fondest memories from your time at ACS?
The best memories of my time at ACS are the ones where we were together as a group.  The 8th group play where we performed "Our Town" was definitely something that was a fond memory for me.  The 8th group class trip to Paris, the 7th group trip to Washington DC, and 6th group trip Pretty Lake were all fond memories of mine. 

7. How did going to ACS impact your life? 
I think a lot ACS alumni will tell you they have a wide variety of interests, and a lot of that originates from going to school at Avery Coonley, the variety of classes, the exposure to different cultures, and the great teachers we had.   

8.  Who was your favorite teacher and why?
I learned so much from every teacher, so I don't think I can pick one favorite.  I've always appreciated that Mrs. Murphy used to have us read different historical fiction books in 7th group, and I really enjoyed that.  I still love reading literature on history and biographies.  Thanks, Mrs. Murphy!

9. What was your favorite tradition? 
I always looked forward to Spring Fair.  There was always a special energy around that tradition. 

10. Why do you think more alums should be involved with ACS
It's a way for us to connect with the school that we all loved. 

(This interview originally appeared in the ACS Alumni Newsletter, September 22, 2017)

Tags:  Alumni  council  profile 

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Revisited: A Profile of Arsalan Iftikhar

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, September 6, 2017

In anticipation of Class of '91 alumnus Arsalan Iftikhar's upcoming September 13, 2017 visit and presentation, the Avery Coonley School is proud to share this interview with Arsalan from 2014, in which he shares some of his favorite experiences as an ACS student and talks about his work as a social justice and human rights advocate. 

Arsalan Iftikhar
ACS Class of 1991
High School: Downers Grove North
College: Washington University in St. Louis (A.B.)
Grad School: Washington University in St. Louis (J.D.)

Could you describe your work?
I am an author, journalist, and global media commentator as well as an international human rights lawyer. I also recently started as an adjunct professor at DePaul University teaching a class called the “Islamic Experience” in the Religious Studies department. Although I am a licensed attorney, almost all of my work involves writing and providing analysis and commentary in a variety of media outlets. I am a weekly contributor for National Public Radio (NPR) and serve as Senior Editor for The Islamic Monthly magazine. I am also the founder of and wrote a book called Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era. Over the last twelve-plus years, I have been interviewed by and contributed pieces to a wide variety of national and global newspapers, magazines, and news programs around the world.

How did your career begin?
Well, I was a second-year law student when 9/11 happened in 2001. As soon as the evidence began to show that the perpetrators were Muslims, I recognized the importance of condemning their actions and communicating the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. I wanted to make it known that Islam is inherently a religion of tolerance and peace, that the killing of innocents is never condoned, and that the actions of the terrorists could not and should not be labeled “Islamic.” I wrote an editorial right after the attacks and sent it off to all the major newspapers in the country, and within a very short time many responded, saying that they would be running the piece the next day. Since then, I have done hundreds of television, radio and newspaper interviews and my career has evolved from there.

Is your work fulfilling?
It is certainly a labor of love since I have probably received over 700 death threats in my life. I am definitely not doing it for the money or the security, but being a part of our global marketplace of ideas is something that I truly love and hopefully is my contribution to my humanity.

What are some of the things about which you are passionate?
Social justice and human rights for everyone. I am engaged in the global media and sociopolitical discourse because I want to represent the disenfranchised and those without a voice. It is a great privilege to be a part of the public arena and to be able to discuss issues that are important to people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Were any of your career interests or passions formed while you were at Avery Coonley?
Sure. From a very early age, the strong sense of community at ACS was very important to me and the diversity of the student body helped to ingrain a sense of equality in me since my childhood. We knew each other so well – we knew each other’s parents and siblings – it was more than a community; it was a family. My parents immigrated to this country over 35 years ago and they wanted to send their children to a warm and nurturing educational environment. To this day, my dad still says that sending his kids to Avery Coonley was the best investment he has ever made for his children.

What are some of your favorite Avery Coonley memories?
Of course, the teachers and other extracurricular activities, like math team and the basketball team; Mr. Mickel was our basketball coach. The Thanksgiving program was always an annual highlight and looking back, I realize how important it was that we all knew that the food that we collected went to those who were less fortunate than us. I also really enjoyed the Third Group trip to Lake Geneva, and I remember finishing third overall in the Spelling Bee when I was in Fourth Grade. I misspelled the word “intolerant”, which seems pretty ironic now!

Also, my whole family were “ACS Lifers” since both my younger sister and brother also attended ACS since preschool. Our shared experiences – the teachers, projects, special events – formed much of our family experiences, both then and now.

What aspects of your ACS experience were most important for you?
The focused importance on forming well-rounded individuals, rather than obsessing about test scores and trophies, was very important. It was great that we had so many opportunities to explore our interests and try new things from a very early age.

Similarly, I also think that learning French from such an early age was also a very valuable experience. Being bilingual expanded my horizons from an early age and I have even done some work for the French Foreign Ministry since that time. But beyond that, this in-depth exposure to another culture really expands children’s worldviews and helps them to realize that there is a big world out there, with many different languages, cultures, and traditions.

Do you stay in touch with your ACS friends?
Yes, many of us are connected on Facebook – social media definitely makes it easier to stay in touch with people.

What advice do you have for today’s ACS students?
Follow your passions in whatever you do in your lives. Please do not do anything because of money or because other people tell you to follow a career path; do what you love! Try to contribute to the world and help as many other people as possible, in whatever way you see fit. Plus, don’t ever think you’re not good enough. We all go through struggles and tough times during our adolescence – try to remember that everything will be just fine. Don’t ever give up on yourself or on other people.

This profile of Class of '91 alumnus Arsalan Iftikhar originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The Avery Coonley School Magazine

Creating the Future Lecture Series Presents: Arsalan Iftikhar takes place on Wednesday evening, September 13, 2017, 6:30-8:30pm (doors at 6pm) in the Avery Coonley School Performing Arts Center. The presentation will include time for an audience Q&A and will be followed by a book-signing. The event is all-ages welcome and open to the general public to attend. Registration is required and tickets are $10; attendees will also have the option to pre-order Arsalan's books, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, and Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.



Tags:  alumni  Arsalan Iftikhar  Creating the Future  diversity  inclusion 

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Notes from the Head of School: On Supporting vs Micromanaging

Posted By Administration, Friday, September 1, 2017

As we begin the year I want to share some thoughts and offer further insights into my vision for ACS, and my hopes and dreams for our community. My goals for all aspects of our program is simple and clear: ACS stands as a premier school for gifted students, and my aim is to not only to ensure we deliver on our missionto provide a learning environment that is appropriate both for academically bright and gifted children,” but that we lead the way towards an even stronger and better understanding of what our students need as well. We want and have excellence—in our curriculum, our teachers, our facilities. We strive to be at the forefront of educational innovation, ensuring that everything from our language arts to our math programs represent the most current and creative thinking in education. We should be a beacon and magnet for gifted education, gifted students, and gifted educators who want to be at our institution. Our strategic planning process will help shape the next few years and give us a road map for building on what we do well, and making greater improvements to the ACS experience. We are an excellent school—but we can and must do more to ensure the needs of our students are met!

I have another vision that I want to share that is focused more on the social-emotional needs of all students, but in this case, particularly relevant to our gifted students; it is one I share both as a fellow parent and as a head of school. I know you have heard some of this before, but one of the greatest gifts we can teach our children is resiliency and independence, which is part of ACS’s greater philosophy: not only do we “assist our students in realizing their intellectual, emotional, social, creative, and physical potential,” we must also “recognize and [be] sensitive to the unique needs of gifted children.” In the pressurized world of schools and academics, it can be difficult to know how to help our children when not everything is perfect. Children will have teachers they don’t like, disappointing grades, friends who fight, lost athletic contests, not placing as highly as hoped in math or science competitions, and times when life truly does treat them unfairly. The best possible approach parents can take is to “tone down the temperature” rather than try to fix the problem immediately, and instead talk to them about how to handle life when something is not perfect. Particularly as many of our students have perfectionist tendencies, feeding into those tendencies, even unintentionally, can create even more anxiety and inner turmoil. We tend to measure life these days on a minute-by-minute basis. Life in general—specifically life at ACS—is the sum total of a child’s elementary school experience. Children need ups and downs, good things and struggles.

With rare exception, checking the parent portal every day for grades and assignments is simply unhealthy. I am sure you have read about the struggles current college students are having now in part because of parental micromanaging. These 18-year-olds are struggling when they leave home, in great part due to growing up without having to learn anything about disappointment or resiliency.

My dream for our community is that we allow our children the space and room to grow up, and not try to protect them from every possible struggle. My promise to you is that we will continue to improve, and address and respond to legitimate concerns. My hope is that we can partner together so that a disappointment does not become a problem, and a bad grade doesn’t become a crisis. This article in The New York Times about parent portals, especially the last couple of paragraphs, gives some excellent advice, and while no article is perfect, I hope you will all take the time to read it. Let’s all look through the portal of life, which is large and vast, and not the nano-second portal snapshot!

Here’s to another great year on Maple Avenue!

Warm regards,

Paul Druzinksy
Head of School

Tags:  gifted students  Head of School  micromanaging  support 

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A Statement from the ACS Head of School on Charlottesville

Posted By Melissa (Michi) A. Trota (Trota), Thursday, August 17, 2017

As Avery Coonley School prepares to welcome students, new and returning, to another school year of growth, learning, and community, our excitement is tempered by the recent riots in Charlottesville, VA. Various groups embracing the toxic ideologies of white supremacy, the KKK, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitism initiated violence fueled by hatred and bigotry that claimed a brave woman’s life, injured many others, and left sadness, pain, and fear in their wake. These horrific ideologies stand in direct opposition to everything ACS represents: devotion to education and understanding, commitment to civic responsibility, and our embrace of diverse and inclusive communities.

Our first and foremost priority is the safety, both physical and emotional, and well-being of every member of our community; as an institution of education, we also have a responsibility to speak truthfully about the harm wrought by hatred and bigotry, and the need to condemn it swiftly and loudly. History has shown us the human toll exacted when such ugliness makes itself known, and who often pays the terrible cost when it’s allowed to run rampant and unchallenged. It has also taught us what can be achieved through principled resolve, resistance, and inspiration. We choose to follow the brave examples of those who have worked and fought for the progression of justice and equality.

Taking a direct stance against hate speech and bigoted violence is a moral and ethical imperative, one that should not be defined by partisan politics. Only by doing so can we truly contribute to creating a safe and bright future, not just for our students, but for the world they will inherit. To our students, to our staff, to all members of the ACS community: You are all welcome and wanted in our ever-expanding family, and your human rights are sacrosanct. We join in solidarity with our sibling institutions and communities in their unequivocal condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and discrimination, and we reaffirm our dedication to creating a culture that is just and inclusive of all, regardless of ethnicity, race, ancestry, age, interests, sexual orientation, LGBTQIA status, religion, disability status, national origin, immigration status, or gender.

On behalf of the ACS community, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Charlottesville, and with all those who have been victimized by bigotry, fear, and hatred.


In light of these recent events, we feel it is even more important to highlight the necessity of understanding, critical thinking, and empathy as part of education. We have been excited about the return of ACS alumnus Arsalan Iftikhar (Class of ‘91), a noted international human rights lawyer, author, and Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown University, who will be speaking at ACS about Islamophobia and the need to build inclusive communities. Unfortunately, we recently received a hateful, Islamophobic message about Arsalan’s upcoming visit from someone outside of our community, but we stand firm in our dedication to ACS’s principles of inclusion and diversity, as well as our commitment to our community’s safety and well-being. Below is the message I recently sent to ACS parents addressing this issue:

Dear Parents:

As most of you know, we are very excited to host human rights attorney, author and speaker, ACS alum Arsalan Iftikhar on September 13th. Arsalan will spend the day with our students and present to the parents in the evening. Sadly, last night we and some members of the ACS community received what can only be described as a hateful and repulsive email from someone pretending (trolling) to be an ACS parent. This individual railed against our hosting Arsalan, and stated extremely negative and ugly views about our hosting the upcoming visit, Islam, and our community.

I want to take the moment to state unequivocally that ACS will never back away from standing up for human rights, and being a community that welcomes, embraces and supports all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and genders. The only speech or views we will denounce are those of hate and those that seek to harm or hurt others. The email we received just reinforces, especially as our nation is dealing with the events such as Charlottesville, why bringing Arsalan to ACS is so valuable and so important to our students and to all members of our community.

I firmly believe in my heart that what ACS stands for, and my message, transcend political parties or labeling as liberal or conservative. ACS stands for inclusion, and for celebrating our deeply diverse community members. We will not be intimidated by hate or fear. All students who attend ACS and all who are members of our community must continue to feel safe, secure and supported, and we will welcome Arsalan with open arms and hearts.

Although the email we received was a hateful message, let us all turn this into an opportunity to recommit together to the core values of ACS and celebrate the opening of school in unity!

We are proud of our community's overwhelmingly positive response and eagerness to welcome Arsalan back to ACS. His thoughtful, passionate, and dedicated work reflects the best of the ACS tradition, and we hope you’ll join us in continuing to build inclusive, welcoming communities, both here at ACS and beyond.


Paul Druzinsky, Head of School

on behalf of the ACS Faculty & Staff

Arsalan’s evening presentation at the Avery Coonley School on Wednesday, September 13, 2017, 6:30-8:30pm, is open to the public and all-ages welcome. Ticket registration is required to attend. For more information, visit

For more information or any inquiries, please contact Associate Director of Communications and Marketing Michi Trota,

Tags:  Charlottesville  diversity  inclusion  multiculturalism 

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Connecting: Online and On Stage

Posted By Adam Metcalf, Thursday, May 4, 2017

After filling up my water bottle, I make my way to the front of the large conference room at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.  Twenty minutes until “go time” and a steady trickle of attendees are already filling up seats.  I make sure my laptop and projector are in working order – always a huge relief.  Hit play on my custom “Boston-themed” playlist and post the QR code throughout the room so that people can scan and have access to my presentation and resources in real time.  Ten minutes to go and all but a few seats are full; clusters of comfortably dressed P.E. teachers find spots on the floor or stand along the walls.  I see a few friendly faces in the crowd, crack a few self-deprecating jokes, and thank them for taking the time to attend my session.  Five minutes to go, all the seats are filled and the floor and the walls are pretty well packed as well.  I take a quick lap around the room and informally ask a few questions to get a feel about the levels of experience with the topic. Thirty seconds until go time…full house…slowly fade volume down on Dropkick Murphys…deep breath. Here we go…

As soon as I became a Physical Education teacher, I was blown away by the lack of ongoing quality support and professional development for our content area.  Because everyone has their own experiences to draw from with regard to P.E., the norm of “happy, sweaty, busy” kids seemed to be good enough.  The bar has been set very low for Physical Education, and as a result teachers too often coast through the school day using teaching methods based on their own experiences, and then coach various athletic teams in the evenings.  Of course, this situation is often magnified by obstacles outside the P.E. teachers’ control, like very large class sizes, inadequate resources, or scheduling shortcomings.  This cycle continues throughout the school year and into the next.  Seeking constructive feedback is difficult for Physical Education teachers.  When P.E. teachers don’t know what they don’t know with regard to current best practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, the expectations for our profession will continue to remain low. 
In late 2012, I discovered an online community of Physical Education teachers sharing and exchanging ideas through 
Twitter.  These incredibly passionate teachers saw the same problems that I saw with regard to our profession and were actively looking to change.  As I grew more involved with this network of teachers, I saw how much it was improving me as a teacher and how the constant sharing and reflecting made for better learning experiences for my students at The Avery Coonley School. 

My continuous journey to improve led me to being featured on streaming webinars, online roundtable discussions, and video tutorials where teachers from all over the world could watch, ask questions, and request resources – all for free!  Through the connections I had made in the #PhysEd online community and a grant that I received from ACS, I was able to travel to Australia and Singapore in 2014, where I visited nine teachers in eight different schools.  Because of these connections I have gained an invaluable look at some of the most innovative schools, programs, and teaching methods in the world.

There was one problem that kept creeping up, however. Public speaking.  I had some pretty intense anxiety about being in front of certain groups.  Speaking in front of kids came relatively easy to me; however, speaking in front of adults was terrifying.  Presenting to parents during curriculum night or colleagues at a faculty meeting seemed to cause some serious fight or flight responses to take over.  It was something that I had to overcome if I wanted to help reshape the Physical Education industry. 

As I saw it, the only way to get better at public speaking was by doing more and more of it.  Despite my apprehension, I continued to do webinars, presentations for Illinois Physical Education teachers, and was even featured on several podcasts.  The feedback from those who attended or took part in my presentations reaffirmed that the work I was doing was meaningful and worth the amount of time, effort and – yes – the stress that I went through in the process.  Just as I was inspired by new ideas from my online colleagues, I was planting new seeds in the minds of Physical Education teachers and they were learning and growing as a result. 

 Last year, I decided to expand my reach and begin to give presentations on a national level.  I presented about Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment at the National Physical Education and School Sport Institute in Asheville, North Carolina last July.  In February and March, I presented at the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (San Diego) and the SHAPE America National Convention (Boston) about implementing technology to streamline student feedback. I also talked about how I enhance our Middle School sport units through the combination of two student-centered instructional models (Sport Education and Teaching Games for Understanding). The response to all of these presentations has been enthusiastic, which is of course rewarding and reassuring to me on multiple levels.

I am the product of the sacrifices of several immensely generous people.  My wife may think that I’m a bit on the crazy side, but she sees my passion and is wonderfully supportive to my cause and vision.  My parents’ hard work and strong emphasis on education paved the way for me to have the ability to choose my career path.  The encouragement and autonomy granted from The Avery Coonley School administrators, teachers, and families has allowed me to grow as an educator and reach students far beyond our community.  I have never and will never take these privileges for granted.  

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Reflections on My ACS

Posted By Archana Pyati '90, Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I was asked recently, as an alumna, whether I would be willing to participate in a survey about my time at Avery Coonley. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard.

Just yesterday I was telling another parent how amazed I am that I got to sing and receive such incredible music instruction at ACS. I have enrolled my kids in a chorus through a local church music program because they don't get that at their school and I know what an influence Mrs. Nelson, my ACS music teacher, had on me. Now they are singing “The Rainbow Connection” for their spring concert, which I remember was one of my favorite songs in chorus. We love to paint and move to all kinds of music, like “Night on Bald Mountain,” one of Mrs. Nelson's staples around Halloween, and I taught them to read music using her "around the world" game. I also tell them stories about Mr. Smith's shadow puppets from Bali, and developing photographs in the lab in the art room. I knew how important math, science, and writing were to academic success; despite that, or maybe because of it, my arts education at ACS had a deeply meaningful – even spiritual – significance for me. Whole parts of my being would not have been nurtured without it, and I would have had so little exposure to languages through which to communicate with the world around me.

Speaking of languages, because of the school's early language instruction I won a trip to Paris after high school. There I fed the insatiable curiosity for travel and other cultures that began in Mmes Reininga, Mole, and Van Buren’s French classes, and also learned to accept that I'm the tiniest fish in the world's grand ocean. I became fluent in French there and, years later, lived briefly in Zambia helping refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and translating for them in resettlement programs. I dedicated a decade of my legal career to serving African women who experienced domestic violence, FGM, and forced marriage, being one of the few French-fluent, free, trauma-informed immigration attorneys in New York. Clients always asked with surprise how I came to know French and could interview them seamlessly and respectfully during their moments of need. It was ACS.

I often think about Mrs. Kerhulas and how she cut me a lot of slack for writing some serious swear words into a short story that was supposed to be a riff on The Grapes of Wrath. Even though my adolescent rage about race and gender roles, and feeling like I didn't and would never fit in, were deep and growing, I felt like she could see that I was still a good kid with potential. I felt accepted.

I will also never forget the time that Mrs. Lenhardt selected me to be one of two team leaders in our archaeological dig. When I tell my kids – who are 6 and 8 – about that project, they have said “wow, is that how you knew you wanted to be a leader?” It was certainly the first time I ever thought that as an Indian girl, I could be. Last week I testified before Congress about the need for our government to continue to protect immigrant survivors of violence, and while some of the committee members tried to rattle me, I stuck to my guns. I have every right to be in those halls, shaking things up, and I know that because of the confidence I gained from that experience in 5th grade.

When I have faced tough times, my mother has reminded me that Mrs. Grussing once told her during a parent-teacher conference that I was a one-in-a-million kid. I don't know if she said that to all parents - she was so loving and generous that I'm sure she did. But for decades, her words have given my family reason to believe in me – and for me to believe in myself – whether celebrating small wins or pulling through difficult times.

My parents, siblings, and I now live in four different states, but we still come together around the dinner table and compare our stories of learning, traditions, and relationships at ACS. Not surprisingly, our grades and test scores never come up.

I know the academic rigor is unique, and I don't discount that. But what comes to me in flashes of warmth and reassurance are the softer things, the things that are harder to measure, the moments of support and kindness and care for children as whole beings. That is special, and is very hard to find anywhere else. I have looked for it for my own kids, and though I'm doing my best to give them what I can, I wish they could have my ACS.

~ Archi Pyati, ‘90


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Understanding the Whole Child

Posted By Barbara Cosentino, Friday, March 10, 2017

Kindergarten teachers Kristen Mitchell and Angel Van Howe and parents Archana Chawla and Barnali Khuntia recently sat down to discuss the ACS Kindergarten program. In this excerpt from that conversation, they discuss how Avery Coonley supports the needs of the whole child.

Kristen: Obviously, this is a school for gifted children and academics are very important. However, there is so much more than just the academic piece. One of our core principles is that we need to honor the way children learn, and not all children learn the same way. We work really hard to understand, as quickly as we can, how each child best learns and then apply that and give different options for learning.

Angel: There are different modalities of learning. We have our kinesthetic learners, our visual learners, our auditory learners. Through our observations and activities, we gather data and incorporate that into our instruction.

Barnali: It’s hard because when you think “gifted,” the tendency is to only think about academic ability. But there is so much more involved with being gifted than that, and a lot of it is challenging.

Kristen: Yes. For example, developing gross motor skills has always been a really integral part of what we do in Kindergarten because there is such an asynchronicity between gifted kids’ mental and physical abilities. We have several programs that we use, and we work in conjunction with the P.E. teachers, in order to take them through a series of skills that we want them to master by the end of the school year. Children need to learn to do certain things with their bodies before they can excel academically. One basic example – children need to be able to cross the midline of their bodies in order to be successful in reading. When you read, you start at the left and then you go to the right and then you have to cross back over, so you’re constantly going left to right and then crossing back over. You have to cross the midline of your brain to do that, so children first have to be able to physically cross the midline of their body before they can start reading. Likewise, in math you have to develop what is called an “inner voice” before you can be good at any sort of math problem. That’s why we have a kazoo band in Kindergarten – to strengthen their vestibular system. We will play a simple pattern, and they have to hold on to it in the minds and then play it back on the kazoo. That helps to develop that inner voice, which in turn is absolutely imperative for their future successes in math. We explain to parents that these are important skills in order for the students to be the best that they can be in the academic sense.

Barnali: You do a great job of communicating that to parents, that it’s not just about academics. I think people might come in the door thinking that’s all it is. I remember when we first started, I felt a lot of pressure to have my daughter in after-school activities every day because that seems to be what everyone does now. And you told me, it’s okay if she just goes home and plays and makes dinner with you. I think that’s something you might not hear in other places because there is so much pressure to achieve and get ahead.

Archana: Parents at first might think that my kid is going to learn every last math problem and will be doing algebra by the end of Kindergarten. Because conceptually they’re not that far off in some ways. But the longer that you’re at this school, the more you see the bigger picture in terms of understanding the whole child, and that support starts here and it carries through. You don’t necessarily see it right away, but I feel like for any parent who’s been here for a while, you definitely see it over time.

Angel: We get to know your children not as students but as people. I think that’s something that’s not always present in other schools. I look at each and every one of my students as little people and get to know them as a whole person. I sit down and talk with them and ask them questions. We’re not just here to teach them their academics. We’re here to create relationships.

Tags:  ACS  gifted education  whole child 

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This is What School for Three-Year-Olds Looks Like

Posted By Lauren Evans, Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Early Childhood Philosophy

Play is an important part of what we do in EC, but we are not a play-based program. We have a developmentally appropriate academic curriculum, designed specifically for our three- and four-year-old students. That does not mean that we hand out textbooks and assign homework. But it does mean that we have three experienced teachers who plan lessons, develop concepts, and use scaffolding techniques to move our students toward a deeper understanding and greater mastery of certain key skills. This distinguishes us from daycare centers and, although we fall into the “preschool” category because of the age of our students, we believe that this is what school should look like for three-year-olds.

Our daily routine is an important part of our overall approach. Providing clear transitions, and engaging the students as they move from task to task or room to room, helps them to adjust mentally and emotionally to the rhythms of the day. Having such a well-developed structure provides clear and attainable goals for students who may struggle early in the year managing their cubby or sitting quietly during circle time. As the year progresses, we are also able to adjust the routine – by having, for example, longer time in our small groups – depending on the children’s interests and development.

We are always cognizant of the fact that the Early Childhood Program belongs to the children; it is their world, not ours. We teachers are careful to show that we value them and want their input. We do not simply offer hollow praise – “What a pretty picture!” – but instead ask questions like, “What colors did you use?” and “What is this person doing?” Rather than imposing rules, like forcing the students to gather quietly in a straight line, we ask them to think about their choices and how their actions impact others. This approach empowers the students and establishes a sense of trust between teacher and student.

Because many of our students have perfectionist tendencies and heightened sensitivities, they can become frustrated, for example, that their fine motor skills cannot keep up with their active imaginations. If what they are able to draw on paper does not come close to the image that they have in their mind, they may become upset or even shut down completely. We are keenly aware of this and constantly look for ways to make the students feel valued and safe. When we teachers make mistakes, we make sure to acknowledge them and model appropriate responses in order to show that it is okay to stumble or struggle. Resiliency is a difficult life skill to learn, but it is important to start early, especially for our highly sensitive students.

Our small class size and low student-to-teacher ratio allow us to offer individual attention to each student. If a child shows interest and is ready for the next step, whatever that may be, then he or she is ready, regardless of age. Likewise, if another child needs some extra time, we can provide that as well. Each student is different but our goals are always the same – to provide a safe, happy learning environment for confident, well-adjusted learners. Children have an innate curiosity; we want to help develop that into a true love of learning. We are not in a race to finish first; we are on a quest to do our best.

It is always a joy for us to watch our former students progress through the grades at ACS and to know that their educational journey began in the Early Childhood Program!

~ Lauren Evans,
Early Childhood Teacher


Tags:  early childhood education 

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If These Walls Could Talk, They Would Sing

Posted By Jaime Surdynski, Friday, February 10, 2017

Can you imagine the stories held deep within the walls of The Avery Coonley School? How would those walls regale you after nearly a century of standing tall? If you listen closely, can you hear each brick mimic a treasured giggle from one of the many generations of students skipping from class to class?  Can you fathom, for even a moment, how many melodies linger in the air, forever preserved by this building?  If these walls could talk, they would most certainly sing.

Music is a staple at ACS. This is true not merely because science has proven that students involved in music and the arts score better academically, but because music is woven into the very tapestry that is The Avery Coonley School. Before the first bell is rung – a musical tradition all its own – students are in the building singing and playing.  And it’s not just a handful of children, but a plethora!  With more than half of Middle School students in choir and a sizable orchestra ranging from beginning to advanced, there is no shortage of sound before school.

This can perhaps be seen most clearly on Friday mornings when, after a week of experimenting, writing, reading, calculating, running, and self-expressing, a beautiful occurrence begins. Cars full of excited children pull up at the circle entrance, kids scamper up the ramp, through the building and, just before hitting the Cloister, take a left toward the music room.  There, with no regard to group or class, students mingle, share inside jokes – though it is hard to have an inside joke with a 60-piece choir – chat about upcoming events, and genuinely connect with one another in ways that many other schools simply cannot provide.  When the warm-up starts, without saying a word, these young minds work together to sing.  And for 30 minutes, they laugh and harmonize, singing worldly refrains, and fill the music room and surrounding walls with melodies from near and far.

But the music doesn’t stop there.  After early morning serenades, students bustle off to classes where they are frequently greeted with welcome tunes. Avery Coonley classrooms are far from quiet. Music is used as an instructional tool in the early grades and as a vehicle to learn French; the science walls could rap like Eminem about mitosis and the literacy walls might sing lilting strains of adolescent poetry. Each Group’s walls have a set of songs near and dear to them, permanently imbedded, some overflowing with circus themes, others with Native American chants. Select walls reverberate melodies without lyrics at all, such as Third Group’s, which resonate with the Japanese hymn Sakura. Kids play sports while music blasts from the speakers, giving their running feet a pulse or ramping up enthusiasm. Though the gym walls may be newer, they too hold memories of championship chants, encouraging words from teammates, and honored National Anthems. 

Perhaps the most musical of all the walls are those in the Performing Arts Center. They house the booming sound of a brass choir, the decadent ringing of chimes, and the hums of songs sung in reverence. These walls provide the backdrop for the Thanksgiving Program and undoubtedly know each verse of “For the Beauty of the Earth” by heart, but they have the Hallelujah descant rooted into their very foundation.  The PAC is home to the opening ceremony for World’s Fair, Heritage Festival, Shakespeare Fest, the Variety Show, and countless more celebrations.  Courageous Seventh Group students have their debut guitar performances on the stage in winter, and spring is marked with commencement songs as graduates become alumni. 

From the walls of the EC building echoing with the ABC’s to the majestic walls of the PAC, there are secrets only a historic building like this would know.  There are melodic memories encapsulated here as richly diverse and beautifully simple as every child that graces the halls of ACS.  In a school that cherishes music as much as we do, it is no surprise that if the Avery Coonley walls could talk, they would sing!

~ Jaime Surdynski
ACS Music Teacher 

Tags:  Fine Arts  Music 

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